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Leading with Character: Pioneering Women of Character

Our Nation quietly observed Women’s Equality Day on August 26th to commemorate adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution on that date in 1920. It’s surprising to me that this historically significant date doesn’t get much recognition. Maybe it’s because many Americans are still on summer break, or are in the throes of returning to school or work. But the date deserves our attention. It marks a seminal moment in United States history: granting women the right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment does just that by prohibiting the states and federal government from denying one of the most significant rights—the right to vote—to citizens of the United States based on gender.

The Right to Vote
The Nineteenth Amendment resulted from decades of advocacy for women’s suffrage in the United States, starting in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, which adopted a Declaration of Sentiments advocating equality between men and women. Yet it took nearly a century of struggle for women to gain the right to vote.

Many Americans may not know that a full 50 years before women were accorded the right to vote, African American men were granted that powerful right. On March 30th, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified; it prohibits the states and federal government from denying citizens of the United States the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Pioneering Women Athletes
During the month of August, I reflect with deep gratitude on the many women (and the men who supported them) who advanced women’s equality to provide women like me the opportunity to achieve our full potential. Women I admire include athletes who boldly stepped up to compete in sports traditionally dominated by men. When I was a cadet at the US Coast Guard Academy starting in 1978 with the third class to include women, I participated in the intercollegiate and offshore sailing programs. Competitive sailing helped me develop the seamanship and leadership skills, along with the confidence necessary to succeed as an officer.

Strong Like a Woman
In honor of women sailors who pioneered in the sport, this week’s blog draws from the book, Strong Like a Woman: 100 Game-changing Female Athletes, by Laken Litman. In her inspirational volume, Ms. Litman profiles 100 of the most celebrated women athletes of all time, including sailing great and philanthropist Ellen MacArthur.

Ellen MacArthur inspires me because she not only excelled as an athlete, but as a woman and a leader of character. On February 7th, 2005, at age 28, she finished first in the world’s most grueling single-handed sailing race—the Vendee Globe. She completed the 27,354-mile circumnavigation of the Earth—by herself—in a little over 71 days breaking the world record, previously held by a man.

In her profile, Ms. Litman observed, “What makes MacArthur extraordinary is not that she’s a woman in what has always been a man’s sport, but that she has such extraordinary resourcefulness and endurance.” I agree. It takes incredible character and courage to persevere for months on end through battering storms and hazards including icebergs on a round-the-world race.

Steps to Success
In a January 11, 2019 interview with Alexandra Gibbs for CNBC’s “Make It” feature, Ellen MacArthur explained her journey to success, “You make every step in your life one that gets you one step closer to that goal. And that step could be so small. I think having a goal, so young, it just gives you focus. And it gives you a direction.” What great advice for young people today!

Ellen MacArthur accelerated her life goals beyond sailing to humanitarian endeavors. Despite her record-breaking accomplishments, she eschewed celebrity status and endorsements. Rather, she focused on giving back by serving others. She founded the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, a worthy organization that arranges sailing trips for children with cancer to help them rebuild their confidence and reengage with society.

A Feeling of Freedom
What resonated most with me from reading Ms. Litman’s profile of Ellen MacArthur was her poignant statement reflecting on the first time she sailed, “I still remember the feeling of freedom when we got out of sight of land.” I, too, recall vividly that same feeling of freedom, while a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, having harnessed the power of the wind to propel me offshore into uncharted waters. What a feeling of excitement—and freedom.

Sailing launched me into a 36-year career as a cutterman serving at sea in the US Coast Guard. And I couldn’t have found a more deeply satisfying career. Thank you, Laken Litman, for bringing Ellen MacAruthur’s story to life. And thank you, Ellen MacArthur for modeling the way as a leader of character.

Look in the mirror. Have you acknowledged a woman hero and leader of character in your life?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: